Is Andrew Sullivan beyond the pale?

August 31, 2020 • 11:15 am

by Greg Mayer

[Update: I’ve been informed by Sam Harris that Murray and Herrnstein did not make the quantitative genetics error I attributed to them: they did not suppose that in traits with high heritability mean differences between populations indicate genetic differences between populations. I wasn’t sure they did (not having read the book), hence my noncommittal “or at least their public proponents” caveat. I am happy to be corrected on this point. It makes the demonization of Sullivan even more perplexing.]

Sort of. We may read him, but we must find him “abhorrent”. Or at least so proclaims Ben Smith of the New York Times in “I’m Still Reading Andrew Sullivan. But I Can’t Defend Him.” The headline condemns Sullivan, in Smith’s voice no less, but then opens with Smith visiting Sullivan, apparently late at night, at Sullivan’s vacation home on Cape Cod. The whole piece contains these sorts of contradictions. Smith presents himself as a devotee of Sullivan, even an acolyte, and—maybe?—a friend. He goes on about how Sullivan pioneered political blogging, influenced a generation of writers, first made the case for marriage equality, presciently touted Obama’s importance before 2008, influenced votes in the Senate, and “helped lead America away from torture.”

But he is to be condemned. Why? Because in 1994, as editor of the New Republic, he published an excerpt from Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s book The Bell Curve, along with some other articles discussing and critiquing the book.

I haven’t read the The Bell Curve, nor the New Republic from 1994 (and neither are high on my reading list). It’s well known that Murray and Herrnstein, or at least their public proponents, made some basic quantitative genetics errors, vitiating their main point on IQ and heritability (see details below). For having published this collection of articles, Sullivan is irredeemable.

Three years ago, when Murray (and his faculty interlocutor) were assaulted by students during a campus lecture gone bad at Middlebury College, Sullivan commented on the 1994 publication, and this, I suppose, is his current view (Sullivan rarely writes about Murray):

[P]rotests against Murray are completely legitimate. The book he co-authored with Harvard professor Richard Herrnstein more than 20 years ago, The Bell Curve, included a chapter on empirical data showing variations in the largely overlapping bell curves of IQ scores between racial groups. Their provocation was to assign these differences to both the environment and genetics. The genetic aspect could be and was exploited by racists and bigots.

I don’t think that chapter was necessary for the book’s arguments, but I do believe in the right of good-faith scholars to publish data — as well as the right of others to object, critique, and debunk. If the protesters at Middlebury had protested and disrupted the event for a period of time, and then let it continue, I’d be highly sympathetic, even though race and IQ were not the subject of Murray’s talk. If they’d challenged the data or the arguments of the book, I’d be delighted.

Whether this reflects Sullivan’s view in 1994, I’m not sure. But I do know that Sullivan is a Voltairean proponent of free speech, and would publish things he disagreed with. Indeed, Sullivan’s willingness to entertain opposing views, and then to change his mind, is one of the striking things about him. It is thus curious that Smith, who claims that Sullivan was an “obvious influence” on his own work, misses this key element of Sullivan’s writing. Oddly, Smith goes on about how Sullivan never changes; but one of the most striking admissions of error I have ever seen in the public intellectual sphere is Sullivan’s owning up to the failures—not just in execution, but in conception—of the neoconservative project for Iraq that he had once so loudly cheered for.

Smith also writes about Sullivan’s departure from New York magazine, which Smith portrays as a preemptive firing before the “woke” staff at the magazine could organize against him. Sullivan’s publication of the New Republic issue—in 1994—was “a firing offense”— in 2020. If true, this is amazing, and damning of New York, its staff, and its editors. (Smith’s account is based on two anonymous “senior employees”.)

Smith’s piece is very Times à la 2020: you’re intolerable because I don’t like something you did more than 25 years ago. And in this case, it’s uber-Times à la 2020it’s not anything you said 25 years ago, but the fact that you let someone else say something that I don’t like 25 years ago. At the Times, editors must pay for the opinions of authors!

Smith at times seems conflicted in carrying out his hatchet job on Sullivan—having praised him, even defended him, he seems reluctant to bring the dagger down, but ultimately he does. Smith is, perhaps, afraid for his own job. The Times has shown itself to be all too willing to force out or fire those who do not toe the line—just ask James Bennett.

I had read some of Ben Smith’s writing before he moved to the Times last spring, and I thought that this move would be a good thing. But it may be that rather than Smith being good for the Times, the Times has been bad for Smith.

h/t Eli

Very brief quantitative genetics lesson: The basic error is to mistake heritability, a within population measure of the proportion of phenotypic variation in the population attributable to genetic differences, for a measure of the degree of genetic differentiation among populations; it is not. As a simple example, suppose we had two populations of a grass that have the same distribution of genotypes, and that heritability of height is high (and furthermore, to be absolutely explicit, there is no genotype X environment interaction). One population is grown with fertilizerm and the other without fertilizer. Although height has high heritability in both populations, the difference in mean height between populations is entirely environmental.

NYT backs off a bit on some claims of the “1619 Project”

March 15, 2020 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

The New York Times is backing off just a little from some of the claims they made in the “1619 Project”. Interestingly, as both an online and paper subscriber, I found out about it not from the Times, but from Andrew Sullivan in New York Magazine! [JAC note: Jake Silverstein, the author of the “correction” below, is the head editor of the New York Times Magazine. If you want to read a correction that is not a correction, this is a masterpiece of slipperiness.]

I find little to quibble with in Andrew’s piece, “A Welcome Concession by the New York Times“, so I’ll quote a few bits.

It took them many months, but it’s a good thing that the editor, Jake Silverstein, and primary author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the New York Times’ 1619 Project have finally conceded that they did make a mistake in claiming that the retention of slavery was a primary reason for the American revolution. . . .

Silverstein’s concession is a marked shift from his position back in December, when he was adamant that he would not concede anything to the many historians who had criticized the project, especially over Hannah-Jones’s assertion about slavery’s centrality as a motivation for the Revolution. . . .

All of this is welcome, and Hannah-Jones and Silverstein did the right thing. . . . But it seems to me that the real tension here was not between journalistic inclinations and history but between ideological inclinations and history. The entire point of the 1619 Project, after all, was to “reframe” American history, to make 1619 its core beginning. And it was to buttress that argument that Hannah-Jones and Silverstein wildly overstated the salience of white supremacy to American independence.

And look, educating people about the brutal horrors of the slavery regime . . .  But the upping of the ideological ante, the decision to call the issue a “project,” the placing of slavery at the center of the revolution, and the intent to deploy it as simple, incontrovertible, historical truth to schoolkids takes things much further.

It is, in fact, history as filtered through the ideology of critical race theory, which regards the entire American experiment as an exercise in racial domination, deliberately masked by rhetoric about human freedom and equality.

Andrew, who still calls himself a conservative, also writes the following:

[F]actual, honest journalism . . . imply a liberal view of the world, in which the race of authors is far less important than the cogency of what they have to say, in which history is not predetermined by analyses of “structural oppression,” but by fact and contingency. [emphasis added]

The sentence must be read carefully: he is accusing the Times of not exemplifying a liberal world view. With this I heartily agree. The paper has, in this project as in other places, fallen to the anti-liberal and racialist doctrines of wokeism.

Although making this concession in a way that let Andrew became aware of it, to its subscribers and readers the Times is still tub-thumping for the Project. It was touted in part of a March 12 in-the-paper-ad (i.e. an ‘internal’ ad), and in an email to subscribers:

The word in the middle of the emailed image rotates among “Music”, “Traffic”, “Health care”, “Capitalism”, “Democracy”, “Education”, and “Prisons”.

A quick look at today’s issue of the Times Magazine shows no sign of the “clarification”, either.

A defense of Dawkins by Andrew Sullivan

July 29, 2017 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has written a number of times about Richard Dawkins’s deplatforming by radio station KPFA, and others (here, here, here, here) have come to Dawkins’s defense as well. In his weekly diary in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan has also come to Dawkins’s defense. This might surprise some, since Sullivan is a fan of religion and a devout Catholic. But Sullivan is also a staunch secularist, who coined the term “Christianism“, in analogy with “Islamism”, to decry the theocratic aspirations of right wing Christians. Sullivan would doubtless contest some of Dawkins’ criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular, but he accepts that much evil has been done in the name of religion: “History is replete with horrors of all religions when abused by fanatics.”

He goes on in his diary to quote in full Dawkins’ remarks on the evil of Islam, including “It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.” Sullivan mocks KPFA, dryly remarking “KPFA couldn’t read that far?”

Having highlighted the ecumenism of Dawkins’ critiques of religion, he finishes by explaining why a “progressive” radio station would take offense at Dawkins:

I fear that the truth is Islam has become an untouchable shibboleth for some on the left. What they lacerate in other religions, they refuse to mention in Islam. Sexism, homophobia, the death penalty for apostasy … all of this is to be rationalized if the alternative is Islamophobia. Why, one wonders? Is it because Muslims are a small minority? But the same could be said for Jews. My best guess is simply that, for the far left, anything that is predominantly “of color” is preferable to anything, like Judaism and Christianity, that can usually be described as “white.” That’s how “intersectionality” can be used to defend what would otherwise be indefensible. The preoccupation with race on the far left is now so deep, in other words, it’s becoming simply an inversion of that on the far right.

For an earlier post on Sullivan’s view of “intersectionality”, see here.

Andrew Sullivan on “intersectionality”

April 3, 2017 • 12:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Most WEIT readers will be familiar with Andrew Sullivan, the conservative, gay, Catholic ur-blogger, with whom we’ve had occasion to both agree and disagree over the years. As Jerry noted, Andrew recently returned to regular writing at New York Magazine, posting a weekly “diary”, as he’s referred to it, each posting consisting of several, often unrelated, topics. It’s kind of like a blog, except he puts each day’s posts up all together, once a week.

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew, inspired by the fracas at Middlebury College, wrote about “intersectionality“. Jerry has alluded to this notion as well, although not by that name, in his critiques of the fractured and contradictory goals of at least the early versions of the March for Science.

So, what is “intersectionality”? Here’s Andrew’s characterization:

“Intersectionality” is the latest academic craze sweeping the American academy. On the surface, it’s a recent neo-Marxist theory that argues that social oppression does not simply apply to single categories of identity — such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. — but to all of them in an interlocking system of hierarchy and power.

Interestingly, he finds it to be much like a religion, which, perhaps surprisingly to some, he finds to be not a good thing. Here is the heart of his critique:

It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy,” and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege,” and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.

Like the Puritanism once familiar in New England, intersectionality controls language and the very terms of discourse. It enforces manners. It has an idea of virtue — and is obsessed with upholding it. The saints are the most oppressed who nonetheless resist. The sinners are categorized in various ascending categories of demographic damnation, like something out of Dante. The only thing this religion lacks, of course, is salvation. Life is simply an interlocking drama of oppression and power and resistance, ending only in death. It’s Marx without the final total liberation.

It operates as a religion in one other critical dimension: If you happen to see the world in a different way, if you’re a liberal or libertarian or even, gasp, a conservative, if you believe that a university is a place where any idea, however loathsome, can be debated and refuted, you are not just wrong, you are immoral. If you think that arguments and ideas can have a life independent of “white supremacy,” you are complicit in evil. And you are not just complicit, your heresy is a direct threat to others, and therefore needs to be extinguished. You can’t reason with heresy. You have to ban it. It will contaminate others’ souls, and wound them irreparably.

Frank Bruni, in the New York Times, also commented on the religious nature of the increasing number of protests that find tolerance repressive, noting John McWhorter’s essay on “Antiracism, our flawed new religion“, and quoting Jonathan Haidt:

“When something becomes a religion, we don’t choose the actions that are most likely to solve the problem,” said Haidt, the author of the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind” and a professor at New York University. “We do the things that are the most ritually satisfying.”

He added that what he saw in footage of the confrontation at Middlebury “was a modern-day auto-da-fé: the celebration of a religious rite by burning the blasphemer.”

Andrew comments further on the religiosity of “intersectionality” in a later column, noting, among other things the connection to Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance“. He writes

The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.

(One small terminological point: Marcuse dismissed the tolerance practiced in Western liberal democracies as repressive, and thus opposed what he called “repressive tolerance”. The tolerance he advocated he called “liberating tolerance”: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.” (Marcuse 1965:109). When Andrew says “How about we substitute the now tired term political correctness with the less euphemistic repressive tolerance?”, I am not sure if he is just misusing “repressive tolerance” (for, indeed, the tolerance Andrew (and I) advocate was called that by Marcuse), or if he is deliberately inverting the meaning that Marcuse intended. Marcuse, presumably, would have called political correctness “liberating tolerance”. “Liberating tolerance”, by the way, is the most Orwellian phrase I’ve come across in a long time. As a candidate for incorporation into Newspeak, however, it is far too Latinate.)

Hello (and goodbye again), Andrew

June 27, 2015 • 12:26 pm

by Greg Mayer

Most WEIT readers will know of Andrew Sullivan, the prolific conservative, gay, Catholic writer who practically invented political and cultural blogging as an ongoing form of writing. Given this capsule description, there were, as you might expect, a number of times when he and Jerry publicly clashed, but there were also a number of points of agreement: despite what you might expect of a conservative Catholic, Sullivan is a staunch secularist, who opposes the baleful influence on public policy of religionists of all stripes (the Christians among whom he decried as “Christianists”, in analogy with “Islamists”).

Earlier this year, Andrew stopped blogging, and Jerry took note, remarking on their disagreements, but also his respect for Andrew’s boldness in defying some of his Church’s strictures, and his dedication to writing and developing a community of online readers. In his remarks, Jerry noted that I was a regular reader of Andrew’s, and privately suggested to me that I post something here at WEIT, which I thought a good idea, but which, for varied reasons, I never did.

The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision gives me a chance to offer just a few words, for Andrew– probably only for this instant– has returned to blogging, offering his thoughts on the decision, one for which he worked tirelessly. I won’t say here all I might have in a longer piece, but I will note that I greatly enjoyed Andrew’s writing and analyses, even when I disagreed, and that an important part of this was because he is open to relentless self criticism, and is open to, and has, changed his mind in the face of contrary evidence and argument, even on issues on which he had staked his reputation (e.g. the Iraq War). Part of this self criticism is how he handled comments from his readers, not via an open or moderated comment section (as here at WEIT), but by what was essentially a letters to the editor section. Andrew posted a judicious selection of the comments sent to him, but did not hesitate to post the voices most contrary and dissenting to his own. From personal experience, I can attest that the submitted comments were read and considered.

Andrew was one of the first to promote marriage equality, at a time when even gay rights organizations and their supporters thought it a kooky idea. When I first heard of the idea years ago, gay marriage seemed to me like a contradiction in terms– it was Andrew who convinced me otherwise. He worked very hard, against opposition from all sides of the political spectrum, to promote the idea, and did so just by the power of reasoned argument– he led no army of followers, no political party, no phalanx of lobbyists. His reflections on the accomplishment of marriage equality (and do reflect on the religious allusion of the title of his piece) that he and many others worked for are well worth reading.

Andrew, it’s good to have you back for a day, and goodbye again.

Another assault on free speech

November 11, 2014 • 10:01 pm

by Greg Mayer

The same day that Jerry wrote about the waning of free speech, Andrew Sullivan independently made the same points at the Dish, decrying a Tory (UK) proposal, already in their election platform, that would be “the most draconian crackdown on free speech since the press won its independence centuries ago.” In a move which he rightly describes as Orwellian, the proposal would create “Extremism Disruption Orders”, which would allow the government to silence speech it considers “extreme”. Once an order is placed against someone, they could not challenge the order on the basis of the facts, and once so ordered anything they wished to publish, either in print or online, would be required to be submitted to the police for approval prior to publication.

Originally intended to be used against Jihadist preachers, the proposal’s scope has been extended to include, among other things, criticisms of religion itself. Andrew writes

So this is how blasphemy laws get a comeback in a post-Christian country: all religions are now immune from any public criticism that could be regarded as “extremist”. And not just religions: also gay people, women and the disabled. And why end there? You can see the multiple, proliferating lines for government interference. If a gay man attacks Islam for being homophobic, he could be prosecuted. But ditto if a Muslim cleric denounces homosexuality. It’s win-win for government power to monitor and control public speech in all directions!

In fact, the proposed law is an invitation for an orgy of allegations of victimhood, for a million ways to define hatred, and for countless lawsuits which would be extremely hard for most people to defend against. I’m sure this blog could be liable in England under these terms if the government decides my questioning of the Matthew Shepard myth is hateful or my insistence on the Islamic factor in contemporary Jihadist terrorism is Islamophobic. And if this blog were in the UK, I’d be constantly worried that it could be shut down [emphasis added.]

Like Jerry, he notes the strange bedfellows such proposals make: elements of both the left and the right support such proposals to shut down speech they dislike, while critics who decry the waning of free speech also come from both the left and the right. Andrew, as most WEIT readers know, is a conservative, gay, Catholic, so on this issue both ends of the spectrum join to oppose these Orwellian attacks on free speech.

Felid Face of the Day

November 26, 2012 • 11:09 pm

by Greg Mayer

Not only did we find much commendable in Andrew Sullivan’s coverage of the pollsters vs. pundits dispute, but Andrew has now taken to posting felid pictures, too! He’s always been a diehard goggieophile.

A cat gazes upward toward cichlid fish caught in Lake Managua, Nicaragua on 26 Nov. 2012. By Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images.

Plus, there’s relevance to readers of WEIT, or, even more so, Jerry’s first book, with Allen Orr, Speciation: the cichlid fishes of the Nicaraguan Great Lakes have undergone rapid diversification, and are the subject of studies of the process of speciation.

h/t Andrew Sullivan

Marco Rubio: not a scientist

November 19, 2012 • 9:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

In an apparent effort to keep up with Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who is being touted as a presidential candidate, produced this gem of reasoning in an interview with GQ:

I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

Andrew Sullivan responds:

No, we have answered that. The earth was not created 6,000 years ago in seven days. Period. Anyone who says anything else as a factual matter is nuts.

Rubio’s waffling was immediately noticed, and even arch religious conservative Ross Douthat, of all people, is mildly critical. Paul Krugman takes up Rubio’s claim that science doesn’t matter:

when Rubio says that the question of the Earth’s age “has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow”, he’s dead wrong. For one thing, science and technology education has a lot to do with our future productivity — and how are you going to have effective science education if schools have to give equal time to the views of fundamentalist Christians?

Importantly, Krugman notes that the underlying  problem is epistemological:

More broadly, the attitude that discounts any amount of evidence — and boy, do we have lots of evidence on the age of the planet! — if it conflicts with prejudices is not an attitude consistent with effective policy. If you’re going to ignore what geologists say if you don’t like its implications, what are the chances that you’ll take sensible advice on monetary and fiscal policy?… [T]he modern GOP [is] fundamentally hostile to the very idea of objective inquiry.

Rubio is either ignorant, lying to prevent alienating his “base”, or incapable of rational inquiry. But whether it’s ignorance, mendacity, or stupidity, surely this should disqualify this man from being put in charge of anything, let alone the United States.

Update. Alex Knapp at Forbes has a great post on Rubio, “Why Marco Rubio Needs To Know That The Earth Is Billions Of Years Old”, in which he details some of the practical consequences of the science of the age of the Earth being all wrong. Do read the whole piece. Money quote:

The bottom line is that this economy, at its root, is built on  a web of scientific knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology. It’s impossible to just cherry pick out parts we don’t like. If the Earth is 9,000 years old, then virtually the entire construct of modern science is simply wrong. Not only that, most of the technology that we rely on most likely wouldn’t work – as they’re dependent on science that operates on the same physical laws that demonstrate the age of the universe.

h/t Andrew Sullivan